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Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1949)

July 14, 2012

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, we are told at the start of Gone With The Wind, and neither is this Anne Boleyn. She also resembles Scarlett strongly in a few other ways; proud, manipulative, sexually alluring but quite happy to keep it at the flirtation level, bad with children and not really wanting to have any herself (“she often wondered if this was a sin in her”) and in love with an unattainable man. As a result, Anne Boleyn the Haughty is at the helm for most of this book, and is it ever enjoyable to read. She starts off as ambitious daughter, determined to climb as high as she can in both French and English society, suffers one of her few defeats when she and Henry Percy are separated, then goes full-on vengeful by taking up with Henry VIII while determined to injure both him and Wolsey for destroying her relationship with Percy. As time goes on and she continues holding out on Henry, partly to see him suffer and partly to get more leverage (she’s told to do this by her French governess – it would be a Frenchwoman, wouldn’t it?) she realizes that a crown is within her grasp and decides to take it. This is another of the Annes who decide that since they can’t have love they may as well have power, and lots of it. But in the process, like many an epic anti-heroine, she loses sight of her better self, and only when her fortunes take a downturn does she begin to realize what she’s lost.

SEX OR POLITICS? A decent amount of both, but on the balance, more sex – or I should say, more passion, since Anne loves to flirt but is skittish about committing herself further except for one night with Henry Percy, and even that has some calculation behind it since her reason for going through with it is to force the issue of their marriage. After this fails to work, she remains intelligent and calculating, but her main motivator is romantic passion turned sour; she wouldn’t have bothered with bringing down Wolsey for a second if he hadn’t humiliated Percy. Her passion for religious reform is there, but takes second place.

WHEN BORN? This is tricky – she’s described as sixteen during the Percy episode, which would indicate a 1507 birthdate, but in 1536 she’s thirty-three years old, which would make her birth year 1503. There’s a lot of telescoping of events and fudging dates in this book, which make it hard to figure out when exactly something is supposed to be happening. George is, however, stated as being older than Anne, and Mary is the youngest.

THE EARLY LOVE: James Butler is mentioned (the “quarrelsome, red-headed little man”) but remains firmly off-stage. Thomas Wyatt is miserably and hopelessly in love with her, but her affection is entirely for Henry Percy, who gets more screen time here than in most books; he is a “plain and soldierly” redhead – more attractive red than Butler’s, one assumes – who charms her by not bothering to pretend to enjoy things he doesn’t care for (music and watching the King play tennis are among these). Their unsanctioned love affair is ratted out by (who else?) Lady Rochford, but before Percy can be hustled out of harm’s way by his father, Anne and Percy meet up one more time, having already vowed to marry each other, and sleep together. Precontracted! Now nobody can part them! Anne is on the brink of breaking the news to her father when she discovers that the Butler match is off and now she’s the King’s mistress-elect and decides that in the interests of safety she might want to withhold the glad news for a while. Percy is married off to Mary Talbot, and the precontract goes unmentioned and, eventually, denied by both him and Anne. One thing I really liked about the portrayal of their relationship was that years later, after Wolsey’s arrest, Percy and Anne meet up again and it’s a supremely uncomfortable scene, featuring the sort of awkward conversation recognizable to anyone who’s ever had dinner with an ex five years after a breakup, wherein both participants begin by talking to younger, no longer extant versions of each other and end by realizing that they’re actually conversing with strangers whom they don’t know very well and like less.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Anne herself is a maid of honour to the elder Mary Tudor when she’s sent to marry Louis XII of France, and is much struck by Mary’s elopement with the Duke of Suffolk; later on, she goes to seek her advice about the Butler match and is generally portrayed as being quite close to her. A number of Anne’s own ladies in waiting feature fairly prominently; Meg Wyatt, who has a crush on George Boleyn, Anne Savile (renamed Arabella) Anne Zouche (renamed Druscilla, and starring in the episode of the stolen prayer book) and Jane Seymour, who is particularly well done: Anne quite likes her at first, as she’s so quiet and efficient, not to mention plain and unlikely to catch the spotlight, and tells Henry that she particularly wants Jane to be there for her second confinement. Naturally this cozy relationship comes to an end when she discovers Jane on Henry’s knee, but despite her excoriations of Jane, Anne still ends up taking the long view; on the eve of her own death she’s able to take comfort in the fact that Jane, being naturally kind in matters which don’t relate to her own family’s advancement, will likely be a good stepmother to Elizabeth.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Pretty much all of the ladies-in-waiting with the exception of the two Janes, Rochford and Seymour. Also, Simonette the French governess (straight out of Strickland) teaches the young Anne to speak French and then later eggs her on to become Henry’s mistress so she can experience the sweet, sweet revenge that comes with total control of a man you despise. Yes, she’s written as being very, very stereotypically French. Sadly, she drops out of the story about halfway through (she stays at Hever while Anne, obviously, moves on) but she’s a lot of fun.

THE PROPHECY: None that I can remember.

IT’S A GIRL! Henry is clearly disappointed (“Another girl!”) but tries to cheer Anne up by saying “We must do better next time, eh, sweetheart?” (Anne, still fresh off of an extended labor, doesn’t want to think about it). But Henry being in many ways fairly childish, he’s quickly charmed by the infant’s grabbing his finger and the mood lightens.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes – when she’s in France, a jealous Frenchwoman remarks that it’s “amazing how a man of breeding could desire to kiss a foreigner with a deformed hand and an ugly mole upon her neck. Actually Anne’s mole was small, but her sensitivity was great.” Anne once again designs the long, hanging “Boleyn sleeve” to hide the extra finger.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Anne’s stepmother turns up again, and once again she’s a kindly, middle-aged woman of just slightly lower social rank than Thomas Boleyn. Unusually, she also gets a name – Jocunda. (Not so out there when you consider that Katherine Howard’s mother was named Jocasta). Thomas is the usual coldblooded chess player, delighted with the idea of pimping Anne out to the King as she’s sure to squeeze a better concession out of him than Mary did. Mary Boleyn is the sweet, earth-motherly type, assuring Anne (who’s never been sure she wanted children) that “babes bring all the love they need” when they’re born. George is a dashing writer of poetry. Lady Rochford is malevolent, stupid, jealous of everyone who isn’t malevolent and stupid, and screwing around on George into the bargain. Forget Richard III, someone needs to set up a Jane Boleyn Society.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, but even if she had it wouldn’t technically have been adultery as in this version she was legally married to Henry Percy, although they both end up denying it for entirely understandable reasons.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Barnes really likes the word “zany” (as a noun); almost every character uses it at some point. Looking in the OED shows that “zany” is Elizabethan, not Henrician, but at least it’s the right century. Sometimes the similes get to be a little much, as when Jocunda Boleyn is telling Anne that Henry Percy and Mary Talbot are having a rough go of it: “By all accounts Wressel [Castle] is a bear pit. The new earl cold as the dairy floor, and his lady hot with resentment.” This is more than made up for by the rest of the book, especially the scenes from Anne’s viewpoint on the scaffold; those final things, insignificant in themselves, which sear themselves into her brain because they’re the last things she’ll see. She sees the executioner — “Henceforward he was the one man left in her life. All the human help she could expect must come from him. Though she did not even know his name, only they two existed in this tense half world between life and death.”

ERRATA: It pains me to say this about a book I enjoyed so much, but the timelines and ages are borked beyond redemption. I’m not sure how much of it was intentionally done and how much was accidental, but after a while, it gets to be very noticeable if you’re at all acquainted with the period. Henry Fitzroy is described as being four years older than the Princess Mary (he was three years younger) and Catherine of Aragon dies a few months after the birth of Elizabeth – I didn’t understand this one at all, as dramatically the real-life timeline works so much better. Other dates are telescoped in the extreme, which is part of what makes it difficult to determine Anne’s birthdate: for example, she’s shown as attending on the elder Mary Tudor after her wedding to Louis XII of France, and then spending some time in the court of Queen Claude, but all of this implied to have taken a few months at most, and not the seven years or so which it took in real life. As a result, a lot of other dates are contracted or jumbled together – the younger Mary Tudor is described as an excellent scholar at a date when she wasn’t yet born, Mary Boleyn becomes King Henry’s mistress around 1515 and is dumped at the Field of Cloth of Gold, and so forth. It’s the sort of time compression that seems more suited to a movie; the kind of thing a good screenwriter will do when numerous characters have to be introduced and described quickly, without constant interruptions of “Three years later” “Six months later” and so forth. And the telescoping does serve the book well in its capacity as a novel, where everything needs to be so much more tightly plotted than in real life.

Lady Rochford is shown testifying at George and Anne’s trial, when in fact she never did (nobody testified, in fact – something Chapuys commented on) so and there’s considerable doubt about the exact nature of the evidence she provided. Additionally she’s given the maiden name of “Jane Rochford” – in fact she was Jane Parker. Henry very likely didn’t go into mourning for Catherine of Aragon (though I have to say, the scene where he’s going into a self-pitying funk because his wife has died and he’s upbraiding all the hapless courtiers for not caring enough is absolutely masterly). Something which I’ve seen others call an error but which I think is open to interpretation; it’s well-known that by the time of Anne Boleyn’s ascendancy, the elder Mary Tudor disliked her intensely, and some have taken this to mean that this dislike was the only sort of relationship she ever had with Anne. This may be true, but on the other hand I find it equally plausible that while Mary may have quite liked Anne as an attendant and helpful maid, the prospect of having to defer to her as Queen was quite another kettle of fish.

WORTH A READ? Definitely, despite the irritating-in-the-extreme fiddling with the dates – the novel is one of those which are less than the sum of their parts, but the parts are so good that you don’t mind. I really enjoyed seeing Barnes’s take on events which aren’t dramatized as much (the theft of Henry’s letters, for instance) or are usually dramatized differently, like the last meeting with Percy. And I must say that the execution scene is one of the best, if not the best, which I’ve read. We hold to Anne’s point of view to the very end, and the random images and thoughts which run through her mind are wonderfully and believably done. It’s not on a level with F. Tennyson Jesse’s “Night Piece To Julia” from A Pin To See The Peepshow, which is pure nightmare fuel, but it’s very, very good.

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10 Comments
  1. Brown Line permalink

    Interesting that this book comes from 1949, 13 years after GWTW and five years after “Forever Amber” – another historical novel about a beautiful, striving, amoral woman (and,I must say, still one hell of a good read). Maybe it has something to do with the time at which they were written, but the protagonists of these books were, I think, tougher than you see nowadays.

  2. sonetka permalink

    You’re right, I completely forgot Forever Amber (I’ve read it once and enjoyed it, but that was a while ago). Barnes wrote a lot of other historical novels in the 1940s and 1950s, including one about Anne of Cleves which I’d like to get hold of — I’m curious to see if this prototype would apply to her as well. And yes, the 1940s and 1950s definitely saw an upswing of Anne Boleyn the Intelligently Calculating, just as the nineteenth century had a large helping of Anne Boleyn the Religious Martyr and nowadays we’re being treated to Anne Boleyn the Feminist and Anne Boleyn the Sexpot. (It’s also interesting how the different eras treat the question of love — the mid-century Annes are treated sympathetically by their authors even when it’s clear that they don’t love Henry, or at least not very much/right away. In more recent years, it seems more imperative that Anne really, truly love Henry in order to make her sympathetic).

    • I read the Anne of Cleaves book by MCB and I loved it dearly. I thought about it when I read your Maligned Wives Club article, partly because I couldn’t believe you didn’t mention the “Hans Holbein was passionately in love with AOC so he painted her inner beauty instead of her less attractive face and he and Anne made googley eyes at each other after Henry divorced her,”part of the book. Now I know why you didn’t mention it.

      I read the AOC book as a teen, so I don’t know if it would hold up, but I remember it fondly, more fondly than Brief Gaudy Hour for some reason.

      • sonetka permalink

        Now I definitely need to read it! That or just turn the blog into one that’s about all the novels on all the wives, which … no. The other Barnes book I’ve read is the one about Will Somers, which is all right, but didn’t have the spark that was in this one. But Holbein/Anne of Cleves? I’ve got to see this.

  3. Denise Hansen permalink

    Thanks for the great review. I loved Brief Gaudy Hour as a teenager and it introduced me to Anne Boleyn. I agree with almost all you have said and the execution scene still makes me weep. I found the book was also quite rich in Tudor period details and I think some of descriptions of Annes clothing – like the black satin nightgown she wore in Calais – are based on court expenditure records. I loved the portrayal of Anne’s relationship with her brother George and the scene when he reads out loud about Henrys impotence – brillantly written.

    • sonetka permalink

      The black nightgown was great, and it seemed just right for the Anne of this book :). I also really liked the details in the scene when the women are making yellow costumes after Catherine of Aragon’s death — when reading about Lord Rochford’s “slashed suit with antlers” it’s hard not to think that we just can’t do parties like they used to. And I fully agree about the trial scene — I think George’s trial in this one may be the best one I’ve read. “Your pardon, milords, the Duke writes a villainous hand!”

  4. So many readers have read this book on the cusp of womanhood (like myself, I was 14) which may be why it leaves such a powerful impression and because of that, I can forgive the flaws.

    Great lines such as “The hateful old niggard!” when Anne listens to Percy’s father upbraid him and wonders if she will lose the horse Percy gave to her and the brilliant description of Jane Rochford, “wasp-waisted and shrewishly pretty in her daring, chequered gown” take the writing to a wonderful level.

    I also loved the scene at the end when Henry and Anne are quarrelling, after she has lost the baby and “quarrelling like any other married couple in the kingdom” and seeking out each other’s emotional weak spots.

    I can truly believe the real Anne muttering, “Ah, perfidious one,” in French on Catherine of Aragon’s death and her resulting last letter to the King whilst the scene of Anne, gathering daisies to make into a nosegay as she walks across Tower Green shortly before her death, will remain with me forever.

    • sonetka permalink

      I didn’t read it until I was in my twenties so I think I missed the window of opportunity, but I can definitely imagine the impression it would leave on a teenager and wish I’d had a chance to read it then! I did love Anne’s wondering if she could keep the horse and how she keeps her sense of style, so to speak, to the very end. I wonder what the provenance of the chequered gown was? I know that stripes weren’t fashionable, but am not sure if chequers would fall into the “for professional fools and peasants only” category. But even if that were the case, it would be just like Jane to be all cross-grained that way. (Poor Jane. She needs a new novel of her own, in light of recent research, but Classic Jane is just such a vivid character that it’s hard to let her go).

  5. I’m sure there is a reference to chequered fabric in Maria Hayward’s book on The Wardrobe of Henry VIII, perhaps it is meant to evoke the feeling that Jane is a chessboard political player at court? Also I love the linking of Brief Gaudy Hour to Gone With The Wind. Both Scarlett and Anne were not keen on giving birth and losing their figures. And Brief Gaudy Hour gives one of the best descriptive scenes of childbirth ever (“woven fleur-de-lises wavered drunkenly in front of Anne’s eyes. If Henry, or any other man, had to give birth to a living child, how quickly would mankind become extinct”). Or something along those lines!

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